Yearning for the same land

There is nothing in the idea of Zionism that leads inexorably to Jewish settlements on the West Bank. And a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be the worst of all worlds.

The Dome of the Rock in the al-Aqsa compound in the old city of Jerusalem
The Dome of the Rock in the al-Aqsa compound in the old city of Jerusalem. Photograph: Getty Images

I write regularly on Israel and the Middle East, but there is one word apparently central to the topic I use only rarely: Zionism. That is because the word has become so misunderstood, so freighted with excess baggage, that it has become all but impossible to deploy it without extensive explanation and qualification. Most of the time, it is best avoided.

Part of the trouble is that a single variant – right-wing Zionism – has come to stand for the whole. Many otherwise well-informed people will reserve the word Zionist for, say, militant West Bank settlers, implying that Israel’s own anti-occupation or peace movements are non- Zionist or even anti-Zionist. That is a false assumption resting on a false premise, for most Zionists use the term to describe not the expansionist desire to control the entire biblical land of Israel, but the more modest claim that there should be a Jewish national home within historic Palestine. That’s all Zionism amounts to. As to the exact size and shape of that home, prescriptions vary from one Zionist to another.

Hence the observation by the Israeli novelist and long-time peacenik Amos Oz that the term Zionism makes most sense when preceded by a modifier, as in “secular Zionism”, “religious Zionism”, “left-wing Zionism” or “rightist Zionism”. Zionism is merely the family name: you need to know a person’s first name to know who they really are.

So, yes, there are hawkish Zionists, heirs of the revisionist tradition of Vladimir Jabotinsky, who are territorial maximalists, eager to fly the Israeli flag over all of the West Bank, which they would call Judaea and Samaria. But there are also left-leaning Zionists who believe the original movement’s goal was the liberation of people, not land; that the security, viability and even the ethical character of the Jewish state matter more than its size – and who are therefore not just willing but eager to see territory now occupied by Israel ceded to become sovereign Palestinian land. These people are no less Zionist than their right-wing opponents. Indeed, they can claim to be the true Zionists, in that the 45-yearlong occupation is jeopardising the founding Zionist goal of a Jewish, democratic state.

To distinguish between left and right Zionisms in this way has become unfashionable. More modish is the view, presented robustly on these pages by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, that any difference is and was cosmetic,that Israel’s founders were all equally ruthless towards the Palestinians they dispossessed, regardless of their nominal ideological stripe. Puncturing the myth of left Zionism is a favourite sport in anti-Zionist circles, particular pleasure attaching to the exposure of brutalities committed by the heroes of labour Zionism, with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, top of the list.

What should today’s left-leaning supporter of that basic Zionist proposition – that the Jews, like every other people, have a right to self-determination in the historic land of their birth – do in the face of such evidence? Should they recoil in horror and abandon the entire Zionist idea as morally tainted?

The first step is surely to face the historical record with honesty. It is no good to pretend, as Israel’s supporters did for several decades, thatthe violent dispossession of the 1947-49 perioddid not happen. It did and there needs to be a reckoning. Instead of seeking to ban all public recognition of the Naqba, as the Knesset did last year, Israel needs to look plainly at the circumstances of its birth and understand why Palestinians regard that event as a catastrophe.

That process has begun: what’s more, the work of revising the original Zionist narrative, excavating the truth of 1948 from the archives, was done by Israel’s own “new historians”. Of course it needs to go further. Several years ago the Israeli daily Haaretz aired a proposal for a national memorial day to mark the Arab dispossession, along with a project to name and commemorate each of the Arab villages that was left empty by its inhabitants, who had either fled or been expelled. The idea found few takers.

And yet to admit that bloody past need not lead inexorably to the negation of Israel’s right to exist, as some Israelis fear. Once again, it is Oz who explains it best. He argues that, besides the legal right bestowed by the UN’s 1947 resolution to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, Israel had a moral right – the right of the drowning man. Such a man is entitled to grab hold of a piece of driftwoodeven if another man is already holding it. The drowning man can even make the other man share it, by force, if necessary. His moral right ends, however, the moment he pushes the other man into the sea.

The Jewish people, scythed by the Holocaust and after centuries of persecution, were gasping for breath in 1948; their need for a home was as great as that of any people in history. They had the right to act, even though the cost for another people, the Palestinians, was immense. The turning point came, however, after 1967, when Israelis began to settle in the newly occupied West Bank and Gaza. Now Israel was denying the Palestinians the possibility of a sovereign national home, pushing them off the driftwood that fate had ordained they share.

Some like to argue that the post-1967 occupation was the inevitable consequence of 1948, that the latter logically entailed the former. If that were true, then opponents of the current occupation would have to renounce their belief in the Zionist enterprise, reluctantly conceding that it was morally doomed from the start. Yet there is no such logical entailment. The initial decision to allow extreme religious nationalists to settle in the West Bank and Gaza was not the ineluctable consequence of Zionism – as the Israeli right argued then and now. It was not necessary, but utterly contingent, a political choice made by the then-ruling Labour Party that was fatefully, calamitously wrong. (Ben Gurion insisted that, stirring though it was to see those freshly conquered lands, Israel would have to give them back.)

History might have taken a different turn, on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. As late as 1988, when the Palestine Liberation Organisation made its epochal shift, recognising Israel and foreseeing a future Palestine alongside it, there was no irresistible logic stopping Israel from grasping that opportunity, ending the occupation and the settlement project and constructing a two-state reality. The same is true of Oslo in 1993 and Camp David in 2000. Each time, human choices on both sides were to blame – along with the cruel fate that cut Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon down at just the point when they understood, and were apparently ready to act on, the case for partition.

There is no denying that it has been hard for progressives to stomach the reality of Israeli policy over decades and that it has pushed the two-state solution ever further out of reach, the dense latticework of settlement making eventual disentanglement a daunting task. Yet it’s a foolish logic which says that because something is this way, it could never have been any other way. If two states now appears a vanishing prospect, that is because of bad decisions that could have been otherwise – not because of something immutable in the Zionist idea.

Which brings us to those said to be abandoning the two-state goal. Perhaps the best-known volte-face came from the late Tony Judt, who floated in a 2003 essay, “Israel: the Alternative”, the notion of a single, binational state encompassing the terrain that is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Yet Judt’s apparent conversion was powered less by the theoretical flaws of Zionism than by an exasperated despair with the political situation. It was more pragmatic than ideological, a reaction to the collective failure to pursue a two-state solution.

In fact, the very manner of Judt’s intervention was pragmatic. He and I met shortly after his essay had appeared in the New York Review of Books. We were from similar backgrounds, both raised in London, from self-described socialist-Zionist youth movements, and I had a lot of questions. One centred on the mood of deep, occasionally ugly antagonism towards Israel and Zionism that had then developed in Britain and Europe, in the heat of the second intifada. Given that climate, I asked if he would have published his article in the London Review of Books. To my surprise, he said he would not. He did not want to join a stampede already trampling on the Zionist idea; it was the complacency of the American debate he sought to shake. He aimed to reveal the baleful destination towards which Israel and Zionism were heading, believing that fear of the one-state prospect might shock US Jews in particular into action. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, but I did not leave that encounter believing that Judt had abandoned entirely the attachments of his youth.

The funny thing is, much Palestinian advocacy of a single state strikes me the same way – as a cry of despair, or else a threat: “See what we’ll start demanding if we don’t get our own state?” The Palestinian thinkers to whom I’ve spoken on this subject exhibit little enthusiasm for the one-state idea except as a tactic to force Israel to pursue two states in earnest.

That makes sense, because the one-state solution is nothing of the sort. It is the lose-lose scenario, in which two peoples who have long yearned for self-determination are both denied. It gives no one, neither Palestinians nor Jews, what they want, namely the chance to be master of their destiny. It suggests that two nations that could not negotiate a divorce should get married instead. It demands that two peoples that have fought bloodily for nearly a century should now live in harmony. It asks of Jews and Arabs the very thing that proved impossible for Czechs and Slovaks – to share a single state. If those mild-mannered central Europeans couldn’t manage it, why do we think Jews and Palestinians would fare better?

The very last people who should want it are those who claim to be pro-Palestinian. Surely it is obvious who will be the weaker partner in this binational equation: economically and by every other measure, Israeli Jews will be the stronger party. Little wonder that the voices agitating loudest for one state these days are on the aggressive Israeli right. Its only appeal is its untried novelty. It is a diversion from the hard, grinding pursuit of the only outcome that can bring a measure of justice – incomplete, to be sure – to these two peoples, fated to seek their dreams in the same land. It is true that the two-state solution, like Zionism itself, has not worked out the way the dreamers hoped. But the fault lies in the execution, not the idea.